Life lessons

Thinking Highways
By Peter van Dijk April 29, 2014 18:07

Life lessons

The 55" displays are connected to the same image processor as the main control room, enabling each operator to select any input for display

Faced with increasing demands and rapidly advancing technology, it is tempting to opt for a complete system overhaul when upgrading a TMS display. But, as Peter van Dijk highlights, such is the versatility of modern display systems that total replacement is not always necessary, nor indeed desirable, as one recent award-winning project in Italy illustrates.

The rapid pace of technological advance combined with the demands of a fast-changing world present particular challenges to the designers of traffic management systems. Designing systems to have a working life of 15-20 years in a world where the component technologies might become outdated in a fraction of that time requires an extraordinary degree of foresight. But even this pales in comparison to the difficulties faced by systems integrators upgrading a system that has already reached the end of its practical lifespan, where they are often forced to work within boundaries imposed by the existing infrastructure.


Traffic management infrastructure represents a substantial long-term investment. Consequently, the opportunities for starting with a completely blank sheet of paper are extremely rare. In fact, when one considers the prohibitive cost of a total system refit and the need for a traffic management system to remain fully operational all the time the road network is in use, it is perhaps true to say that the only time an integrator will ever have such freedom is for new-build facilities. The rest of the time, they will always have to find a way to work within the limitations of the existing infrastructure and technologies.

However, along with limitations there are opportunities. Rarely do all the elements of an existing system become obsolete at the same time. Strategic updating of key equipment at the “pinch-points” of an existing system often allows existing hardware to be used more effectively and the performance of the system as a whole to be improved, bringing greater functionality, reduced cost of ownership and increased versatility. Through selective upgrading, performance improvements which are proportionally greater than the costs involved can be realised.

Such was the strategy adopted by Autostrada del Brennero SpA, operators of the A22 highway which extends from Modena in Italy to the Brenner Pass. Connecting the Po Valley with Austria and Germany, the 314km-long toll road is one of the most important axes of the Italian motorway network. With its existing analogue-based control room system becoming outdated and expensive to maintain, the company was keen to upgrade to the latest digital display technology. Yet, its 200-camera monitoring system and the software platform controlling it were still perfectly serviceable.

Furthermore, the firm was keen to avoid the additional cost and disruption of having to retrain its operators to use a completely new system. Thankfully in this case, advances in display technology worked in its favour, enabling integrator 3P Technologies to develop a solution marrying the latest display technology with the existing analogue camera system and software platform.

The opportunity to bring the plans to fruition came with the commissioning of the new Autobrennero User Assistance Centre (Centro Assistenza Utenza or CAU) in 2013.


The new CAU sits at the heart of an extremely complex and advanced traffic management system consisting of around 200 CCTV cameras, monitoring devices and SOS contact points, all linked via optical fibre, radio links and landline cables. Traffic, weather, visibility and emergency request information are all conveyed in real time to the CAU, which is manned by multilingual personnel around the clock. The Highways Police Motorway Operating Centre (COA) is located adjacent to the CAU.

The two centres operate closely together in order to minimise response times and maximise the efficient handling of emergencies. Management of the system is handled by a specially-developed software platform that enables operators to monitor any of the camera feeds or data inputs in the event of an incident. Also built into the system is an innovative Automatic Incident Detection (AID) function.

The system captures and analyses data from both cameras and sensors to provide an automated response to unusual patterns. If a problem is detected, such as an accident, traffic jams, delays, or even a motorist driving against the flow of traffic, the image processing algorithms generate an alarm which is then forwarded to a control point at the headquarters. These systems also record the incident including a short period beforehand in order for operators to be able to reconstruct the dynamics of the incident which has occurred.

The “pinch-point” within this otherwise very advanced system was the control room screen on which the information was displayed. Based on analogue LCD technology, the existing screen had become woefully inadequate for the demands placed upon it. A total of 50 19” LCD displays were employed in the main control room display. With their intrusive screen borders, the LCDs were incapable of creating a truly seamless display surface and the switching system behind them gave little control over how information was displayed. The LCD displays themselves had limited lifespan and required extensive maintenance.

Most modern control rooms are now based on DLP (digital light processing) rear projection cubes employing DMD (Digital Micromirror Device) technology developed by Texas Instruments. In this approach, a silicon chip surface comprised of hundreds of thousands of microscopic mirrors is used to reflect light from a light source onto a screen. Each mirror represents a single pixel, which can be turned on or off individually to create a fully digital display. Because the individual screens fit closely together, they create a virtually continuous screen surface.

The difference in clarity between this and the old analogue system is remarkable, enabling graphics to be displayed clearly and with greatly improved contrast levels. For the CAU refit, 3P Technologies went one stage further by installing DLP cubes based on the latest high-tech LED light sources. The Mitsubishi Electric DLP cubes selected for the project use high-power LEDs rather than conventional mercury lamps. LED technology has advanced very rapidly over the last five years and now offers significant advantages over the older technology.

Mercury lamps have an average lifespan of around 6000 hours – less than one year of 24/7 operation – before they need to be replaced. At an average cost of €1,000 each, this represents a significant operating expense, which for the CAU would have amounted to a hefty €20,000 bill every year.

Mitsubishi Electric’s 50PE75 LED cubes, by contrast, have an expected lifespan of around 80,000 hours, or nine years of continuous 24 hour operation. Combined with Mitsubishi’s unique aircooled design and low-noise fan units rated for 100,000 hours, this essentially removes the need for routine screen maintenance for the best part of a decade.LED-lit DLP cubes also have a wider colour gamut and maintain a constant colour temperature throughout their lifetime, meaning better colour reproduction and greater stability.


However, the brighter, sharper display and significant cost savings were just the start. The Bilfinger-Mauell processor used to control the display sources enabled, for the first time, complete versatility of how and where content was displayed. Rather than being restricted to set display sizes, operators could now arrange content in windows, wherever they wanted on the screen.

A Crestron touchscreen controller allowed operators to recall these scenarios with a simple touch interface developed by 3P Technologies. Five Bilfinger-Mauell decoders provided an interface to the existing analogue camera system, allowing operators to use their familiar pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) controls. Crucially, the Bilfinger-Mauell controller allowed the display itself to be controlled from the existing traffic management software suite, meaning that operators could continue to use exactly the same system as before, with no retraining necessary.

Behind the scenes, multi-level redundancy has been built into the system. The Bilfinger-Mauell controller has dual LAN connections, three SSD hard drives and hot-swappable power supplies. The Mitsubishi Electric cubes have built-in emergency signal switching, which means they will switch to a backup signal feed automatically in the event of a processor failure. Signal distribution between the processor and display is via fibre-optic cabling for the highest signal quality and security.

The system has been further enhanced by the addition of four additional displays in other parts of the building, based on narrow bezel LCD panels, also by Mitsubishi Electric.

Each 55” display is connected to the same image processor as the main control room, enabling the operator to select any of the inputs for display. One panel is installed in the Highway Police control room, with two more in supervisor meeting rooms. A further panel is used in portrait mode to display a real-time map of the highway showing incidents, weather and other information. The CAU’s technical director is able to oversee the entire system using a 65” LCD display installed in his office.

The award-winning CAU project is a good example of the dramatic improvements that can be achieved with a limited system upgrade. And technology to enable this kind of partial system revamp is become increasingly available. In January 2014, Mitsubishi Electric launched a new range of LED DLP projection engines, enabling customers to replace their older mercury lamp lit display walls with the latest high-brightness LED technology, dramatically extending the lifespan of their facilities and reducing maintenance costs to practically zero. Whatever advances in technology might lay ahead, reducing cost is one goal that will never become outdated.

Peter van Dijk is EMEA Business Manager at Mitsubishi Electric Europe B.V.

Thinking Highways
By Peter van Dijk April 29, 2014 18:07